Museums in Johannesburg

Posted by stephanie on Apr 13th, 2009
Apr 13

Apartheid Museum
The Apartheid Museum is located in Johannesburg and one of the main reasons why I wanted to add Joburg to my itinerary (and definitely worth it!)  The term “apartheid” derives from Dutch and means separateness.  Basically, apartheid propagated the idea that people not of European descent were sub-human, and it stifled the culture, education, and ambition of other races, most severely that of the Blacks.  Apartheid policies were implemented in 1948 when the Afrikaner-dominated National Party took control of the government under D.F. Malan. People were classified into the racial groups of White, Black, Colored, and Indian.  Segregation became the norm, and Blacks were even stripped of their citizenship.  Hendrik Frensch  Verwoerd is considered the most influential politician in the growth of apartheid, called it the “policy of good neighborliness.”  There is a lot to know about apartheid, and I spent about 3 ½ hours in the museum, so I don’t think I can get into all of the specifics here!  I walked away from the museum drained because of the amount of information and the weightiness of the topic, but it is a fantastic museum.  The remnants of apartheid can still be felt today.  Apartheid was dismantled from 1990-1993, culminating in the elections of 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected president.

Hector Pieterson Museum
This museum was a surprise addition that we didn’t know what included in our tour of Soweto, but incredibly interesting and informative.  It basically tells the story of the June 16, 1976 student uprising in Soweto and is named after a 13-year-old boy who was sadly the first student to lose his life during that day.  These protests erupted because of the government’s policy to enforce education in Afrikaans rather than English.  Police opened fire in Orlando West on 10,000 students, and 566 people died.  After this event, economic and cultural sanctions were placed on South Africa from abroad in protests to their apartheid policies.  Soweto and other townships became the stage for violent state repression.  There was a poem in the museum that touched me the most and captured for me most beautifully the impact of this event.

First victim…
A bullet burnt
Into soft dark flesh
A child fell
Liquid life
Rushed Hot
To stain the earth

He was the first victim
And now
Let grieving the willows
Mark the spot
Let nature raise a monument
Of flowers and trees
Lest we forget the foul and the wicked deed

-Don Mattera, 1976, Azanian Love Song


Soweto is not a museum, but is instead home to approximately 1 million people in Johannesburg.  The largest township in South Africa, it still reflects the racial policies of the apartheid government.  Townships in South Africa were formed as a way to force Africans out of the city centers.  Soweto is a group of townships south west of Johannesburg (Soweto is an abbreviation of SOuth WEstern TOwnships).  Soweto is also the only place in the world where two Nobel Prize winners grew up on the same street—Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  I think this is a true testament to the human spirit that even those who grow up under policies meant to oppress them can fight for their own rights, then go on to lead their country based on policies of unification and forgiveness.  What really interested me about Soweto, though, is how nice a lot of it is.  There is definitely an emerging black middle class, and many of the streets and houses in Soweto looked like a suburb out of the U.S.  Of course, the disparity between the way that many white South Africans life and the way that black South Africans live is still really great.  There are also shantytown portions (informal settlements), where there is much poverty, but Soweto is definitely an emerging place, full of culture, and hope and optimism for the future.  From what I saw of Soweto, I really liked it.  People were walking around and there seemed to be more of vibrancy in this community than the walled-in, guarded homes that are so common in Johannesburg and the country.

I recently read a book called Khayelitsha about a white South African journalist who moved into the largest township in Cape Town called Khayelitsha.   Basically, there are no white people in townships, so it was interesting to read about his experiences living there for 2 years.  He had to confront his own prejudices as a white South African, but enjoyed living there and became a part of the community, learning in the process that much of the fear and paranoia many in South Africa experience is more made in their heads than actual reality (although there is a lot of crime in townships and elsewhere because there is so much desperation, don’t get me wrong).

There are so many museums and books about South Africa and its recent history and the apartheid past.  It is nice to know that the country is confronting its issues and not forgetting about them.  Hopefully the problems of the past will stay there and South Africa can move into a brighter future.  I think that it is well on its way.

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